I Know There’s Fish Out There*

FishingFishing has been woven into our human experience since people first learned how to catch fish. Although people all over the world eat seafood, you really see the fishing culture in seaside or lakeside areas, for obvious reasons.

Fishing is big business, too. Whether it’s sport fishing or commercial fishing, there’s a lot of money to be made in the industry. Fishing is so deeply ingrained into human history that it makes complete sense that it’s also an important part of crime fiction. There’s no possible way for me to mention all of the novels in which fishing plays a role; but here are a few examples.

In John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Mystery, Reverend Dodd, vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Sea, takes an interest in the shooting murder of Julius Tregarthan. Dodd’s friend Dr. Pendrill has been called to the scene, and Dodd comes along. Soon enough, it’s clear that this case isn’t going to be easy. The victim was shot through the open window of his sitting room. Three shots seem to have been fired, all from slightly different angles. So one possibility is that there were actually three assailants. Other evidence, though, makes that unlikely. It doesn’t help matters that more than one person had a motive for murder, so there are several suspects. As he follows leads, Dodd finds that he gets some very valuable information from a local man who sometimes takes his fishing boat out.

Lots of people depend on fishing for a living, even if they don’t work for a large commercial outfit. For instance, in Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore, Vigo Inspector Leo Caldas and his assistant Rafael Estevez investigate the death of a local fisherman, Justo Castelo. In many ways, the death looks like a suicide. But little clues suggest to Caldas that Castelo might have been murdered. The only problem is that there doesn’t seem to be much motive. Castelo wasn’t wealthy, and he lived a quiet life. In fact, he preferred not to mix very much socially. Then, Caldas discovers something important. In 1996, Castelo and two other fishermen were on board a boat with Captain Antonio Sousa when a terrible storm struck. Sousa was lost in the storm, but the other three made it back to land. They’ve never spoken of the incident since, but Caldas finds that it plays a role in Castelo’s death. This novel offers an interesting look at the small-time fishing life, with boats coming in early in the morning to sell their catch at the local warehouses, and the area restaurants and individual buyers coming in later to make their choices. It’s not an easy life.

We also see that in Sandy Curtis’ Deadly Tide. Allan ‘Tug’ Bretton has captained his Brisbane-based family boat Sea Mistress for quite a long time. But he’s got a broken leg from an incident that ended in the murder of Ewan McKay, a deckhand from another trawler. Bretton’s daughter Samantha ‘Sam’ wants very much to take her father’s place as skipper until he’s back on duty. Her logic is that if Sea Mistress doesn’t go out, the family fishing business will suffer and may fail. Her father finally agrees, and Sam prepares to gather her crew. Her new deckhand is Chayse Garrett, an undercover police officer who’s investigating McKay’s death. The police suspect that Bretton killed McKay, and that he might be involved in the drugs smuggling trade; Garrett’s job is to find evidence bearing on that theory. Sam’s not aware of Garrett’s identity as a detective, but she has her own reasons for wanting to bring down McKay’s killer and clear her father’s name. As Sea Mistress’ crew looks for answers, we learn a lot about life on a modern trawler. We also learn how the small-time fishing industry can sometimes be useful to the smuggling trade.

Smuggling also happens in the larger commercial fishing trade. In Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star, for instance, Arkady Renko has been assigned to work as a crew member on the Soviet fishing ship Polar Star. It’s a punishment for his pursuit of highly-placed Party officials (read Gorky Park for the details). Renko is fed up anyway with policing, especially if it doesn’t really change things. But he’s drawn into a case of murder when one of his crew mates, Zina Patiashvili, is hauled out of the ocean with the day’s catch. At first, there seems no motive for the murder. The victim was a galley worker, like everyone else, and hadn’t any obvious enemies or wealth. But soon enough, Renko learns that there was another side to her. She was involved in smuggling and blackmailing, and some very important people are implicated.

Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano lives and works in fictional Vigàta, on Sicily. So as you can imagine, there’s lots of fishing integrated into that series. For example, in one plot thread of The Snack Thief, Montalbano investigates the shooting of a Tunisian sailor who happened to be aboard an Italian fishing boat. Montalbano finds that he was killed when a Tunisian boat fired on the Italian boat. The question then becomes: how accidental was the death, really? In that thread of the story, Camilleri makes reference to the long-standing unease between Tunisia and Sicily over water, territory and fishing rights.

Many people enjoy sport fishing and fishing as a hobby. So there’s also a lucrative business in providing places and equipment for fishing enthusiasts. Just ask Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowksi. He and his wife Rosie live in the small Saskatchewan town of Crooked Lake. But they own Stuart Lake Lodge, a holiday fishing lodge in the northern part of the province. Clients come from many different places, including other countries, to spend time fishing and relaxing. It sounds harmless enough, but in Burnt Out, the lodge is burned, and a body discovered in the ruins of the fire. Now, gossip spreads that Bart is guilty of arson and very likely murder, too. He knows that he’ll need to find out what happened to his family’s business if he’s to clear his name. The Bartowskis aren’t going to be the same after this tragedy, but Bart’s determined to at least preserve the family’s integrity.

Scotland’s another popular place for sport fishing. Just ask M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth. He’s the local bobby for the village of Lochdubh, but he’d just as soon relax with a fishing line. So he understands the appeal of John and Heather Cartwright’s Lochdubh School of Casting: Salmon and Trout Fishing, to which we’re introduced in Death of a Gossip. The Cartwrights open a new class, hoping that all will go well. It doesn’t. One of the participants is Jane Maxwell, gossip columnist for the London Evening Star. She wants new fodder for her column, and is willing to go through everyone’s proverbial closet, looking for skeletons. When she’s found strangled with casting line, it’s clear that someone in that fishing class didn’t want her to find out too much. Macbeth investigates, and as he does, we learn a bit about the modern fishing resort. There are a lot of other crime-fictional mentions of the Scottish fishing life, too, including Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed and Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective, to name just two.

There are many, many other examples of fishing in crime fiction (I know, I know, fans of Johan Theorin’s Gerloff Davidsson). Which do you like best?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Downeaster ‘Alexa.’


Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Domingo Villar, Gordon Ferris, Johan Theorin, John Bude, M.C. Beaton, Mark Douglas-Home, Martin Cruz Smith, Nelson Brunanski, Sandy Curtis

30 responses to “I Know There’s Fish Out There*

  1. Now that is a really international trawl (sic) – great stuff Margot.

  2. There are memorable fishing scenes in Arthur Upfield’s The Mystery of Swordfish Reef. DI Napoleon Bonaparte is called in to solve the case of three fishermen who disappear after going out for a day’s fishing. It’s not Bony’s usual outback setting here – he’s an active and very enthusiastic fisherman chasing swordfish as well as a killer.

  3. The combination of fishing and crime makes me think of Cabot Cove and Jessica Fletcher. Well, not so much her as Seth Hazlitt, I think it was, who always wanted to drag her out on a boat. Have you ever read any of the Murder She Wrote books, Margot? Are they as much fun as the TV series?

    • Oh, yes, FictionFan. Cabot Cove! Certainly that’s a great example of a town with a strong influence of the fishing culture. I admit I’ve not read the books, so I can’t comment on them. But I hear they’re fum. Don’t know for sure, though.

  4. Col

    Carl Hiaasen’s Double Whammy features a murder and the fishing circuit which can be quite lucrative apparently. James W. Hall’s PI – Thorn also does a fair bit of fishing and may be a guide when not sleuthing. I think the theme comes up a bit in a lot of Florida based crime fiction I’ve read.

    • I think it comes up in a lot of Florida-set crime too, Col. And most definitely, Hiaasen’s work mentions it more than once. Thanks for mentioning his work – I left a big gap there. And yes, fishing is a a big business in Florida.

  5. Kathy D.

    Well, I know no one is fishing for compliments, but what an unusual and interesting topic, certainly not to be found on other crime fiction blogs.
    I’m floundering around here myself trying to figure out how to add to the discussion; short of reading of Montalbano’s adventures and having read The Snack Thief, I haven’t come across this topic often. There are fishing harbors, involved, however, in other Camilleri books and in a lot of crime fiction.

    • Well, no, Kathy, no-one was angling for compliments, but thank you. And personally, I always think it’s worth re-reading the Mntalbano books. Reel in one of those and you’ve got yourself a terrific read. And you’re right; fishing boats, harbours and the like play their role in Camilleri’s work and lots of other crime fiction.

  6. Margot, doesn’t Martin Cruz Smith’s POLAR STAR begin with a harbour scene somewhere in Cuba? I could be absolutely wrong as I read the novel long ago. Off beat, coastal smuggling (of gold, I think) between Dubai and Bombay is a key setting in Robin Moore’s DUBAI, which I recall was a gripping novel.

  7. Kathy D.

    Well, I’m definitely hooked on Montalbano and I’ll take any bait Camilleri throws my way as I try to worm my way into the library’s stacks to find the books I’ve missed. That will buoy my spirits.
    Yesterday, had a whale of a day with computer security hassles, good advice, bad advice. Am ready to go back to cave writing!

  8. Ngaio Marsh’s Scales of Justice has a big theme of trout-fishing, with the title a terrible pun. And David Mark’s The Dark Winter – 1st of his Aector McAvoy books set on Humberside – has a strong plot thread about deepsea fishermen.

  9. I definitely picked up some titles for my TBR list with this post, Margot. I honestly can’t think of one mystery or thriller I’ve ever read that involves fishing or fishermen.

  10. Hi Margot. Another great topic. I remember reading Fish Story by Richard Hoyt about thirty years ago. I don’t recall the particulars but as I remember it had something to do with fishing and was pretty good, as Hoyt’s novels tend to be.

    • Thank you, Bryan – glad you enjoyed the post. And thanks for mentioning the Hoyt. I confess that’s one of his I haven’t read, but just from the title it sounds like a good example of what I had in mind with this post. I must put that on my list to track down.

  11. I never really dwelled on the fishing aspects of Montalbano or Polar Star when reading them. I just adore the stories, and got lost in them. I shall cast my net further now and look into the other titles you mentioned. Thanks

  12. I have got to try some Carl Hiaasen. Been meaning to for a long time. And Nelson Brunanski’s books too.

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